Social media bans don’t address youth mental health problems

I co-wrote this piece with the fantastic Margarita Panayiotou, Senior Lecturer at the University of Manchester who’s work focuses on psychometrics, measurement, social media & adolescent mental health who is currently conducting the #So.Me study. 

The last weeks have seen an increase of discussions surrounding youth mental health and its relationship with social media. This is in part due to the publication of a new book by US social psychologist Jonathan Haidt1, and in part due to the new social media ban for people under 14 signed by Florida’s governor Ron DeSantis. The law follows over 20 laws passed by 13 states on online child safety in 2023, with many more bills pending in 2024.

What do we know about social media harms?

Unfortunately, our understanding of social media harms and benefits are still at its early stages. While politicians must take action, these efforts should be based on evidence. What do large-scale investigations (1, 2, 3), reviews and meta-analyses (45) on the relationships between digital technology use, such as social media, and mental health problems tell us? These studies, including recently published work in thousands of young people (6) find no, mixed or only small associations. This means there is no concrete evidence that social media has negative effects on the mental health of many or most young people, and contrasts with some popular science accounts that are not grounded in facts (7). Another important caveat is that most studies are correlational and cannot tell us whether social media causes worse outcomes, or the other way around.

Of course we must acknowledge that potentially, for some (89), and under certain circumstances, social media may be harmful. Young people report challenges (10) such as cyber-bullying, perpetuation of unrealistic body image standards, and misinformation. But these issues are not limited or inherent to social media, and will not go away with bans. There is bullying in classrooms, body images are just as unrealistic on TV, and misinformation is common in other media channels as well. The key difference between experiences on social media and traditional media or school is that young people have not been banned from the latter. Instead, we have focused on implementing and evaluating initiatives that equip young people with important skills to help them manage their world. These include school-based bullying (11) and social-emotional learning programs (12) that have shown to be effective. Focusing on digital citizenship programs (1314) for young people and their parents and teachers should therefore be our way forward.

What are the consequences of a social media ban?

A social ban likely comes with negative, unintended consequences. When researchers actually talk to young people about their experiences, they tell us that even though social media can be challenging for them, they also serve as important systems for peer support, resource exchange, and destigmatization (10, 15). Body positivity and mental health awareness are just two of many topics. LGBTQ+ young people in particular, a vulnerable group in terms of poor mental health (16) and suicide risk (17), have highlighted the importance of certain aspects of social media as a means to find solace and connection (1819). Young people tell us (10, 15) that social media is a space where they get inspired, learn things and share their own creativity and knowledge. The ban will take this away. Young people feel that adults might have a different opinion about social media because they did not grow up with it (15). They ask for trust and agency (15, 20). Some parents will share this view, because this ban will interfere with their own autonomy in raising their children. Legislation must take into account the voices and experiences of the people it will affect the most. Florida’s ban fails to do so.

What can we do instead?

When Florida’s new law was signed, House Speaker Paul Renner stated that a child “doesn’t have the ability to know that they’re being sucked into these addictive technologies and to see the harm and step away from it”. This is a worrying statement, and parents and teachers are understandably worried (21). And social media does have some problematic features designed to keep the user engaged, such as endless scrolling and push alerts. These can make it difficult for some users to step away. But then let us have a conversation about these features, rather than banning social media. Florida’s ban is reminiscent of what experts in this research area call technology panics (22). Similar bans were proposed for the radio, the TV, computers, and smartphones, with a 1941 paper bemoaning that over half of the young people studied were ‘severely addicted’ to radio (22). We risk keep going around in circles. But, if not banning, then what?

Social media will not go away, in the same way the radio, TV, streaming platforms and computer games have not gone away. The main impact a ban will have is that young people will find alternative to existing social media platforms that may be harder for parents, educators, researchers and legislators to study, monitor, and supervise. So rather than imposing restrictions, efforts should be directed towards educating youth, guardians, and educators on navigating the digital landscape safely and responsibly. Other efforts should be regulatory. Many social media platforms, just like many television programs or streaming services, utilize algorithms designed to maximize user attention and retention. Legislature can step in here to ensure that companies design age-appropriate features and algorithms (2324).

It is easy to fall into the trap of focusing on the one true cause of young people’s mental health difficulties. But adolescent development and mental health are very complex (2526), influenced by many biological, social (family, peers, school), and broader societal (e.g. politics, community, finances) factors. It is therefore unrealistic to conclude that social media is the culprit of their mental health problems, and that a ban will have substantial impact. A study (27) with thousands of young people found that when taking some of this complexity into account, other factors, including lack of family support, may be much more important than social media. This means that a social media ban is going to be ineffective, it creates a wrong sense of security, and also diverts attention from root causes of mental health problems in young people, such as childhood adversity (28), deprivation (29), discrimination (30), gender and sexual inequalities (16), and concerns about their ecological future (31). Increases in mental health problems tell us that many young people are in need, but only a small percentage has access to specialist child and adolescent mental health services (32) and there are clear inequities to this access (33). Legislative efforts should prioritize addressing these issues.

Instead of panic and rash measures that take away young people’s agency and opportunities, we must focus on addressing the many and multifaceted mental health challenges young people face that are not limited to social media. Otherwise, we risk failing them.

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  1. We highly recommend this book review by Candice Odgers

7 thoughts on “Social media bans don’t address youth mental health problems

  1. Pingback: Depressed Kids or Over-concerned Boomers? My Review of the Anxious Generation - tobias dienlin

  2. Andreas Lieberoth

    Thanks, Eiko, once again for your thoughtful, critical and grounded approach to the data that surrounds us – and the assumption that easily get thrown around in online debates.

    Working and writing in the field has made me realize that what the debate about social media needs more than anything else, is a sense of proportionality. Findings that should be uncontroversial to researchers in the field, such as statistically systematic but small and complex relationships between SoMe and a range of themes from wellbeing to “addiction” scales, routinely get touted as evidence of huge risks that should be managed with sweeping actions like technological bans in schools, that are easy to suggest but unrealistic to implement, and likely to have much less of an impact that proponents think.

    So thanks for challenging the trends of naive monocausality and lacking sense of proportion, that permeates the fears of parents, professionals and politicians alike wherever I go.

  3. VincentPsych SA

    I usually respect Eiko’s research and considered opinions.
    But this piece is revealing some bias and wishful thinking. I counsel young people across Europe and USA. They are TRAPPED in that “solace and connection” fed by social media. This piece does not address grooming, ideology and radical ideas like postmodernism and transhumanism that is being pushed via the algorithm and certain malevolent forces. You have millennial teachers usually childless and themselves suffering with Existential anxiety, triggering the algorithm to feed these kids MORE Existential anxiety, coercing them into fear-based behaviours. Think: how animals trapped in a zoo are being “helped” by seemingly benevolent zookeepers, yet the animals are shrinking, getting dumber and demonstrating obvious stress behaviour! This is similar. Allowing SM for kids under 16 is like providing a stuffed toy for a bear in a cage!
    I have some issues with your “results” of SEL programs. You know who funds these programs right??
    Ok even objectively I have reviewed outcomes of SEL programs lately and they are NOT good. SEL went from helping kids to understand their emotions to enabling kids to self-ID as traumatized victims.
    I am a practitioner, so the things I am saying that you may not agree with will only show up in studies in the future.
    I assure you; the internet is a sewer fro a young brain. Grooming, ideology and indoctrination is RAMPANT!
    You are already off track when you start letting the kids lead; “Young people tell us…” come on guys! This is irresponsible. If we listened to what young people WANT they would never develop what they NEED to be successful adults.
    Let me tell you that my work with trans and detrans kids reveals that most of what Haidt, Twenge and others have recommended is spot on! Gen X raised kids the way they wish they had been raised, rather than understanding that kids need competencies to ‘launch’ from the nest! Not comforts.
    I am sensing a tone here that Desantis can do no good, that would be a political bias which would be sad to see.
    This ban was not done suddenly or in a “panic” at all.
    Remember America is not Europe, everything there is more intense. The Gen Z crisis there is VERY bad.
    Your ‘What can we do instead’ section is accurate but banning social media for underage kids will release them NOW and allow them to refocus on family, activities and friends.

    1. Eiko Post author

      “This piece does not address grooming, ideology and radical ideas like postmodernism and transhumanism that is being pushed via the algorithm and certain malevolent forces.”
      “I assure you; the internet is a sewer fro a young brain. Grooming, ideology and indoctrination is RAMPANT!”

      None of the issues you identify — grooming, ideology, indoctrination, the internet — are limited to social media, and they will not go away with a social media ban. That doesn’t mean there aren’t problems, which we clearly acknowledge in the piece.

  4. Pam

    Well done. Sadly, the fear factor gets more headlines than evidence to the contrary, damn the evidence. I am saddened that for all the concerns, few advocate for digital literacy education as a protective measure.


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